The middle way

The story told about the Buddha’s life is that he grew up indulged and sheltered as the son of an Indian ruler, living a life of luxury and ease. His father didn’t want him to be exposed to some of the harsher realities of life such as sickness and death, and it wasn’t until Siddhartha left the palace gardens as a young man that he encountered someone who was sick, someone old and near death, a poor person, and a monk. Having never been faced with the realities of life before, these meetings left a deep impression on him, and he decided to leave his old life behind, including his wife and young son, and become a spiritual seeker. He joined a group of ascetics living in the forest, but after a number of years of harsh practices such as extreme fasting which brought him close to death, he felt no nearer to understanding the causes of suffering.

 

After his insight experience under the Bodhi tree, he spent the rest of his life teaching what he called ‘the middle way’ – a life of balance between the extremes of indulgence and deprivation. He taught that our bodies are precious vehicles which we should appreciate and take good care of. On the other hand, in Buddhist psychology, the root of our suffering is our tendency towards greed, aversion, and ignorance, and we need to be aware of our impulses which are always wanting more of what we like, and avoiding that which is unpleasant to us.

 

The middle way is like a perfectly tuned violin string – not so taut that it produces a shrill sound, but also not too lose so it can’t be played on. We can easily hear whether a violin is in tune or not. It’s more difficult to be attuned to our lives, and where we stand in regards to the middle way. There is always someone more indulgent or more disciplined than us, so it’s difficult compare ourselves to others. There are no rules as such – the lifestyle of a monastic living in the forest will be very different to that of a working parent with five young children. And while the middle way would avoid extreme lifestyles, it is also a state of mind. Someone might be living a moderate life which comes across as harmonious and balanced on the outside, but actually be quite harsh in their thinking, constantly striving to get it ‘right’, and never at ease. Whereas the life of another person, say the busy working parent, might appear chaotic and hyper-stimulated, but somehow at the end of the day everyone’s needs in the family are met, and there is a sense of contentment underneath all the turmoil.

 

I find the middle way a very helpful concept when I try to balance my life between becoming complacent, and constantly striving to achieve. I like to think of it as a reasonably wide road, which gives me some leeway to move in either direction without immediately falling into a ditch. If we’re too anxious about ‘getting it right’ all the time, the middle way can feel like a narrow mountain track in the mist where the smallest misstep will have us sliding down the slope. On the other hand, the middle way does have some limits – it’s not a carte blanche to do exactly as we like.

 

We usually have a sense of when we’ve strayed too far from the middle – and meditation or prayer or a quiet time of reflection can help us to tune into that sense of unease, and become clearer about what feels right to us. It’s like driving a car, where we are constantly making small adjustments, but know immediately when we’ve strayed onto the verge. Once this happens, we have a choice to carefully pull back onto the road, or blithely set off cross-country in the car and hope for the best. The middle way is knowing what the road looks like in our life, and making the small adjustments needed to stay on the path and not wander too far off track into the metaphorical swamp.

 

Mindful practice idea:

Think of one area in your life where you might have a tendency to over-indulge, or else deprive yourself unduly. What would the ‘middle way’ look like here? Set the intention to bring the idea of the middle way into this part of your life, and take note of how it feels.

 

Anja Tanhane

 

 

 

 

A good meditation





‘A good meditation is one you have done.’ Shinzen Young

When we reflect on the expectations we have of ourselves, we might notice that we often tend to set the bar pretty high. This can be true for meditation, where we might feel as if everyone else in the world is meditating like little Buddhas, with their minds at rest in perfect peace and equanimity, and it’s only us who is struggling with intrusive thoughts, physical discomforts, an inability to focus for more than a few seconds, and general feelings of restlessness and frustration. In fact, virtually all meditators have experiences which are far removed from bliss and calmness, and each tradition has techniques for working with our inherently restless mind, and systems of thought for putting these experiences into context. This is why it can be difficult to learn meditation on our own, without a teacher – we don’t know what to expect, and how to work with the challenges which inevitably arise when we meditate regularly. It can be helpful to regularly be in touch with more experienced meditators who can guide us, by attending courses or meditation evenings or retreats. And if we’re fortunate enough to find a teacher we trust long-term, this can be wonderful opportunity to deepen our meditation practice.

Meditation is about seeing clearly what is actually going on – not getting caught up in avoidance or projection or excessive drama. Sometimes, what is going on are strong emotions such as frustration, sadness, resentment. We might sit down to meditation with the idea of gaining some relief from these, and then find ourselves confronted with the current state of our mind, with nowhere to escape to. Mindfulness meditation cuts off our usual escape routes, the many ways we might have at our disposal to avoid being with ‘life as it is’. We are left instead with the bare bones of our existence.

These bare bones can become the building blocks for a less reactive life, a life where we are more present, more grounded. Regular meditation involves simply showing up to the practice, and staying as present as we can during the time we have set aside for it, whether it be five minutes or thirty or an hour. Some days we may notice sensations of peace, whereas other days we realise that our mind is really quite busy today. As Shinzen Young says, a good meditation is one that you have done. Sometimes the most challenging meditations are the ones which are ultimately most useful to us, as they invite us into a different way of responding to the challenges of everyday life.

Practice idea:

Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, and on the left hand side, write down your expectations of how meditation ‘should’ be, and on the other side, some of the experiences you’ve had during meditation. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane





The second arrow





The parable of the second arrow is a well-known Buddhist story about dealing with suffering more skilfully. It is said the Buddha once asked a student,

‘If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?’

He then went on to explain,

‘In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.’

This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I’m not sure I would go this far – to my mind there are clearly situations where to experience suffering is the only human response. However, it is true that our interpretation of events plays a large role in how we experience them, and that we do have a tendency to overdramatise much of what happens to us. Let’s say someone at home or work leaves a pile of dirty dishes on the bench. You notice it, and have an immediate reaction of annoyance. So far, so good. But what often happens next is we think – he/she is always leaving a mess for me to clean up, how many times have I said blah blah, they clearly don’t care for me at all, why am I always unappreciated; it would have been better had I not been born at all…

So that last bit is probably (hopefully!) a slight exaggeration, but we can go quite quickly from a situation – someone annoys us, our arm hurts, we’re coming down with a cold – to extrapolating all kinds of emotions and thoughts from it which have little to do with the original stimulus. This can be seen as the second arrows of suffering – the ones we add onto the original arrows which life is already flinging at us in any case. I was talking about this recently on the phone to a friend who was at home with his sick family – he, his wife, and their four young children had all been struck down with the flu and were at various stages of sickness and recovery. What he’d noticed was his own reaction to being ill – it felt wrong and unfair, he was young and had been riding his bike to work to get fit and he shouldn’t have been saddled with this illness. His children, on the other hand, played when they had a bit of energy, and slept when they felt unwell. They took the illness in their stride and simply responded to how they were feeling at the time. Of course they didn’t enjoy being sick, but they didn’t beat themselves up mentally with dialogues of what should or shouldn’t have been. They were dealing with the first arrow, but not the second one.

We probably find ourselves dealing with the second arrow of suffering many times in the course of a day. The story is not about denying our initial reaction, to pretend we are immune from pain. It is about having a choice in how to proceed next. Over time, having an awareness of this choice, and refraining from flinging endless second arrows at ourselves, can help to liberate us from much unnecessary suffering.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you have a strong response of pain or annoyance at a situation, ask yourself – what is my story line here? Am I still dealing with the first arrow of suffering, or have I well and truly moved into the second one?

Anja Tanhane

 

 





Touching the ground





We may feel we are a long way from being a Buddha, but the story of his enlightenment can be helpful for us in our mindfulness practice. It is said that, following years of being brought up in luxury, and then a choosing a life of asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama sat down under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he found complete freedom (luckily he was already close to enlightenment, otherwise he could have got very hungry!). All night long, the demon Mara (whose name means ‘delusion’ in Pali) and his forces bombarded him with rocks and arrows, blistering sands and boiling mud, but Gautama sat calmly through it all. Next, Mara tried temptation, and since Gautama was still a relatively young man, Mara naturally chose to tempt him with three young maidens, who happened to be Mara’s own daughters – desire, pining and lust. Again, Gautama remained centred and undistracted.

It was nearly dawn when Mara confronted Gautama with his final challenge – doubt. Continue reading “Touching the ground” »





Dignity





Kangaroo paw

Do you know a person who embodies both dignity and humility? It could be someone you’ve met, or a well-known public figure, or even a historical or fictional person. They carry themselves well, don’t often look harried or put upon, but are also warm and approachable. If you can’t think of a particular person, perhaps imagine someone. Get a sense of what spending time in their company might be like. Is it relaxing being around them? Do you feel like you can let your guard down a little, and perhaps feel more at ease about who you are?

The meditation posture, where we sit with our back upright but relaxed, our eyes closed or half-open with a soft gaze, and our shoulders at ease but not slumped forward, is a posture of centeredness, strength, and dignity. Continue reading “Dignity” »